Is there a doctor in the town?
Underserviced York Region communities consider options to attract medical professionals, without hurting existing doctors

Jan 8, 2004
**** Queen, Staff Writer

Communities across York Region are kicking off 2004 by boosting efforts to recruit desperately needed doctors and health services.

"Ensuring communities have the health care they need in all forms, from doctors to nurse practitioners to the health environments needed to provide the services to the diagnostics, is a huge priority for the region as we enter the new year," said Fred Tufnell, chairperson of the Simcoe York District Health Council.

"I would say recruiting doctors is a key issue but I wouldn't say it's the overwhelming issue. It goes hand-in-hand with working to develop and provide the best tools, environment, diagnostics etc. But obviously we need the doctors in the numbers required to provide the services."

Virtually every community in the region is trying to hike its health services.

For example, an increasingly nasty battle is raging in Georgina over plans for a health clinic in Sutton.

In an effort to bring doctors to the underserviced town, the Georgina community health care council has attempted to open a medical clinic on Baseline Road using a $1-million grant from the town, obtained from the sale of Georgina's hydro utility.

However, the deal has been clouded in controversy.

Members of the health council have been accused of not being accountable to the public. Six Keswick doctors threatened to leave Georgina, upset public funds would be used to finance a competing clinic.

Finger-pointing over the clinic dominated the municipal elections last fall and resulted in Mayor Rob Grossi defeating incumbent Jeff Holec.

"It's been a huge issue," said Mr. Grossi, a vocal opponent of the health council's actions.

"At the end of the day, the problem is bringing health care to an underserviced community. We've been abandoned (by higher levels of government) when it comes to health care and the issue has landed on our doorstep.

"If growth is going to occur -- and we know growth is going to occur -- and the responsibility for health care lies with the federal and provincial governments and they approve immigration and emigration, shouldn't ensuring adequate health care in communities be in their purview?"

Meanwhile, physicians in Whitchurch-Stouffville are warning of a drastic family doctor shortage.

"With the population expected to expand, the situation can only get worse. There's a definite shortage," said Dr. Donald Petrie, who is not accepting new patients.

"You can't look after the ones you're committed to. You can't look after the whole world. There's a limit."

Dr. Petrie said the government needs to increase the supply of doctors, but acknowledged there's no quick solution.

"It's a bad situation but we do the best we can."

Mayor Sue Sherban is establishing a task force of politicians, community leaders and representatives from the town's medical community to develop a doctor recruitment strategy.

"Like every community that's growing, doctors need to grow with it," she said.

"We don't really have the space right now for physicians. Doctors want a turn-key operation where they can walk in and have the facilities ready to begin practising. We need somebody to come to the table and build a facility that would be physician friendly."

To make sure the situation in Georgina isn't repeated, Ms Sherban acknowledged the town will have to walk a fine line between attracting new doctors and ensuring current physicians don't feel alienated.

Rural areas aren't the only communities hoping to improve health care.

Despite expansion projects at York's three existing hospitals, Vaughan residents and community leaders are calling on Queen's Park to approve a new health care facility for their city.

Councillor Mario Ferri said the growing municipality needs its own hospital.

"We are the only large city that doesn't have a hospital within our own borders," he said, noting Vaughan grows by 10,000 residents a year.

"The rate at which the population is growing has put tremendous pressure on the existing hospitals. As this population continues to age and grow, the existing hospitals will not be able to absorb the extra pressures and so we need to start now, so that in the future we can have a hospital."

Demands for improved health care aren't limited to York. The issue is highlighted by Ontario's doctor shortage.

The Ontario Medical Association estimates almost 1,600 doctors are needed immediately to care for the more than 1 million residents across the province who can't get a family physician.

"This shortage is expected to increase to between 2,400 and 3,400 physicians by 2010, depending on the degree of government action," a report from the association warns.

"Ontario's current physician shortage is projected to almost double within 10 years. As a result, it is anticipated that between 1.4 million and 2 million Ontarians will be seriously hindered in their access to medical treatment."

During last fall's provincial election, Premier Dalton McGuinty promised to improve access to health care by establishing 150 family health teams, including doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health care professionals.

According to Mr. McGuinty, the teams will ensure patients have round-the-clock health care, provide patients with comprehensive care and ease line-ups at emergency rooms.

Thornhill MPP Mario Racco serves on a legislative health and social issues committee and expects the committee to begin addressing the doctor shortage within days.

The focus will be on increasing medical school spaces, removing barriers preventing foreign doctors from practising and providing incentives for physicians to work in underserviced areas.

"Hopefully, in a few years we can start providing enough additional doctors to provide the services we need," he said. "Doctors are needed and expected in one of the wealthiest provinces in the world."

Despite the hurdles, it is possible for communities to recruit new doctors. But as Mount Albert residents know, it's an uphill battle.

The town finally found a doctor in October 2001, following an exhaustive three-year search.

Dr. Gail Firestone became the lone physician for the community of 4,000, which had been dependent on patchwork medical care before she began.

Although York North MPP Julia Munro was relieved Mount Albert had eventually found a doctor, she blamed Ontario's physician shortage on a joint federal/provincial decision in 1992, which reduced the number of openings in medical schools.

"I just couldn't imagine, I know hindsight is 20-20, but if you looked at immigration statistics, demographics, the aging population, how could you think you need fewer doctors, not more?"

To attract doctors to underserviced communities, the former Tory government provided $4 million for free tuition and location incentives.

But communities are finding they have to go much further if they hope to beat out competing areas for doctors.

For example, former Mount Albert doctor, Charles Bill, and his wife, Peg, contributed $22,000 of their own money so Dr. Firestone could upgrade the town's clinic.